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Youth Encounter was first established as a teen camp under the events company Encounter FMX Ltd by Mary and Joel Wanhill in 2009. With the camps gaining more traction, the couple saw an opportunity to expand, and they registered as a charitable trust in 2012, which we now know as Youth Encounter Ministries Trust. Mary worked full-time, in a voluntary capacity, nourishing their vision to make an impact on the young people in Aotearoa New Zealand. To this day, Youth Encounter continues to expand in its capacity, with Mary and Joel still fully committed to leading the organisation forward in its mission.

Once known as ‘Scary Mary’ for her internationally renowned world record-breaking achievements in freestyle motocross, Mary has used Youth Encounter as a platform to create activity-based programmes that give young people a sense of belonging. These activities bring young people together to have fun and explore the joys of life. As the CEO of Youth Encounter, Mary exercises her counselling qualifications to understand and support young people, deliver high-quality programmes, and assist her staff in facilitating these programmes. With the organisation expanding, Mary has taken the opportunity to step into overseeing the operations at Youth Encounter, providing training for staff, and creating foundations for the organisation that will ensure a powerful legacy is left for the next generation.

Mary's story

“Growing up, I often felt 'lesser than'  those around me as I did not fit the 'norms' of society. This led me to risk-taking activities to find my sense of purpose and significance in life. But instead of falling victim to these risk-taking desires, I was able to channel them for my benefit of becoming the person I am today. It gave me the strength to push through, take on new challenges and succeed.
I see so many young people like me not fitting the normal as society perceives it. Struggling through school and socially because their potential has been squashed, often by virtue of their circumstances. They are looking for purpose and significance in life, just like we all are, but end up in unhealthy risk-taking behaviours to get noticed or accepted.
We often label these youth 'at risk' and create new programmes for them to try to fit the norms of our society. This, I believe, severely damages their potential because we are conveying the message that they are 'lesser than' or 'not good enough'. We are not accepting them for who they are as and put conditions on their acceptance across all communities; from schools to churches, advocating for a certain way of doing things so that you can belong. We forget who the real person is inside, and we focus on fixing the symptoms.
My desire is to provide a place of acceptance for young people by using the common denominator of thrill-seeking activities such as dirt bike riding, surfing and wakeboarding. We choose to identify with the bikes as a tool to create connection and engage with youth in their world. This is not on the condition of changing who they are but rather the choice to participate in healthy risk-taking activities. This then allows space for the young person to see themself for who they really are and to encounter their full potential. 
When we are given permission to take risks, there is a sense of freedom of choice that comes with it. I believe this is at the core of who we are. The choice is ours to live a life wide open to endless possibilities because that is the potential within us!”

“Youth Encounter exists because we believe every person will encounter their God-given potential to live life wide open when they know they belong and believe in their true value.” - Mary

Joel's Story

Joel’s story is very similar to Mary’s. By virtue of circumstances, Joel’s family relocated, and he had to shift to a different high school. At this pivotal adolescent age of finding independence and identity, Joel dropped out of school without receiving the education that he was capable of. He ventured into extreme sports to get his fix, Joel developed strong relationships with his peers, which enabled him to stay on track towards a positive future. He later met Mary, and the two resonated with each other’s stories.

Having experienced feelings of rejection and a lack of belonging in their teenage years, Mary and Joel used this to fuel their passion for having an impact on young people in Aotearoa New Zealand. Understanding that years of adolescence are crucial in determining the trajectory for adulthood, they endeavoured to help others create their own sense of belonging and encounter their God-given potential.

With over 300 people engaging annually in the several programmes offered at Youth Encounter, Mary and Joel’s dream of creating a safe space for young people to ‘live life wide open’ has finally become a reality. This organisation, whilst seeing the importance of engaging with ‘at-risk’ youth, also seeks to provide a place of belonging for those from more affluent homes who are struggling to ‘fit in’.

Being a registered charity, Youth Encounter is fully funded by grants, generous sponsors, donations, fundraising events, and our own social enterprise, which operates specifically to raise funds. Currently, we have 15 employees and over 40 volunteers who contribute to the optimal functioning of our operations and programmes. Our staff carry the same passion for seeing young people have fun, explore things outside of their comfort zone, find their identity, and open up to one another in a safe environment. Many of our staff have been impacted by Youth Encounter’s programmes, have grown up in this vibrant community throughout their teenage years, and now strive to give back to the community and empower young people to ‘life live wide open’.

"We create an environment that accepts young people where they are at with no agenda to change them, but rather unleash and release the incredible potential that they have been created with" - Mary


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